Three years after #EndSARS protests: Progress and prospects

[file] EndSars protesters gathering at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, on October 20, 2021.

On the third anniversary of the #EndSARS protest this month, it is important to assess its far-reaching effects on Nigeria’s politics. What connects the protest – primarily a protest against excessive police use of force – to politics and governance, is that the police represent the state. In this sense, the use of force to oppress citizens, especially in the context of the government’s failure to deliver public goods – security, health, education, and infrastructure – led to dissent and resistance against the Nigerian state. The protests occurred amidst growing general, and particularly youth dissatisfaction with the government at a time when youth unemployment in Nigeria hovered around 27%. The country has an estimated population of 217 million, 64% of which are youth, aged 18 to 35, and more likely to be unemployed despite being more educated than the older generation. The most prominent problems facing these young people are security, unemployment, and the economy. These youth believed – and still believe – that their government is failing them on all these issues and leading the country in the wrong direction.

Within this gloomy context of youth unemployment and economic problems, the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) also faces its own challenges that drive officers to engage in corrupt and extortionist activities to supplement their insufficient remuneration. The United Nations refers to Nigeria as having surpassed the threshold of one policeman to every 450 citizens – regardless, insecurity continues to be a major crisis. A connection can be made between the under-funding of the Nigerian Police Force, corruption, and insecurity in Nigeria. Comparatively, the police are provided far lower budget sums than other security sector services. Budgetary allocation for 2012 saw 1.6 million Naira per soldier, 9.8 million Naira per sailor, and 7.1 million Naira per air force personnel. In sharp contrast to all other security forces, the police personnel were allocated 87,000 Naira per officer. This has been customary since 1999 and shows the persistent neglect of the police even amidst domestic security threats – its effects are evident in widespread corruption of the NPF and resultant insecurity across the country.

Corruption in the Nigerian police takes the form of bribery and extortion. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 117 million Naira is paid in bribes each year, where the average bribe size is 5,700 Naira. The same source notes that in 2019 33% of Nigerians who encountered the police paid a bribe, indicating that a large percentage of the bribes go to policemen. Moreover, out of five Nigerian public institutions surveyed in 2019, the police were indicated to be the most corrupt in the country. In terms of the use of force by members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian Police, Amnesty International documented 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment, and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. SARS victims appear predominantly to be males between the ages of 18 and 35, and from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups. Growing anger due to oppression from this security force among other factors led to the #EndSARS protests of October 2020.

The impacts of the #EndSARS protests include an increase in youth participation in Nigeria’s politics and governance due to a renewed belief in their abilities to influence government decision-making through civil disobedience. One week into the nationwide protest, the SARS unit was disbanded. This small victory created a sense of agency for youth. Their voices were momentarily silenced, however, after the eruption of pockets of violence, the government typically responded with force, with videos surfacing online of government security forces opening fire on civilian protesters reportedly killing at least 12 and severely injuring hundreds at the Lekki toll gate shooting of October 2020. Excessive use of force by government security forces has been a trend since the return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999. In 2003 civil protests against the oil price increase resulted in police using teargas and live rounds, reportedly killing at least 20 protesters. The Muhammadu Buhari administration also reacted in similar fashion against peaceful Shia protesters in Abuja in 2019 reportedly killing 11 protesters, a journalist, and a policeman. These incidents formed the triggers and motivations for increased youth participation in Nigerian politics, as demonstrated in the February 2023 elections.

Analysts have argued that the #EndSARS contributed to increased youth mobilisation in the run-up to the 2023 general elections in Nigeria, as online pro-#EndSARS protesters morphed into “Obidients”: supporters of Peter Obi, the Labour Party (LP) presidential candidate who promised more transparent government. Both the #EndSARS and #Obidient movements were dominated by mostly young middle-class Nigerians from urban areas. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of Nigeria, the total number of registered voters in Nigeria was 93.5 million, with young people aged 18 to 35 making up 39.65% of that number, the highest percentage of disaggregated demographic data on registered voters in Nigeria. Obi lost the elections to the All Progressive Congress’ (APC) presidential candidate Bola Tinubu. However, the votes Obi received have been described as tantamount to a political hurricane for an insurgent candidate who broke the duopoly of the APC and People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In 2019, the LP had received 0.02% of votes cast, compared to 25% in 2023 – the most votes in 11 of Nigeria’s 36 states, and the federal capital, Abuja. Obi came third behind winner, and ruling party candidate Tinubu, who won 36.1%, and PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar, who came second with 29.1%.

Although Obi lost the election, the 2023 polls highlighted the growing youth participation in politics and governance in Nigeria, and signalled the potential power of the youth vote. Moreover, youth participation has been growing momentum since 2011, particularly through protests, with movements and campaigns such as the “Not Too Young to Run” and “Bring Back Our Girls” which had significant impacts. Together with the #EndSARS movement, all three demonstrated youth potential and agency in Nigeria.

Dr Igba is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.